Attention and emotional regulation
The positive relationship between emotional regulation and personal well-being is now well known. It is a topic that is increasingly widely studied, disseminated and put into practice in the world of education and health care.
Very closely linked to emotional regulation is our attentional capacity, because it is necessary to exercise the ability to distinguish one's own emotions. Without this knowledge of our own affective reactions, it is difficult for us to make (more or less automatic) decisions about what to do to model them; that is, reach emotional self-regulation.
Although it is not the subject at hand, understanding the role of modulating our feelings and emotions in our well-being is understanding that they have their function. There are never too many of them, despite being unpleasant at times.
They could be equated to messengers that give us information about ourselves and our relationships. Information that, although it often has to be qualified, should never be discarded if you want to have a complete photograph.
In addition, trying to suppress or ignore them only causes the "messengers" to throw stones at our window to make themselves heard. As do the thoughts that we turn to over and over again, or physical discomfort, exhaustion and various physiological symptoms, which indicate that "something is not right". It can also happen that they pound on the door, to the point of being able to break it down, as occurs with disproportionate emotional reactions when "we can't take it anymore."
How does our attention influence this affective self-knowledge?
Simply, as a gateway or essential condition for that self-knowledge:
If I am not capable of directing my rational and perceptive resources to my affective sensations, I will not be able to take the step of distinguishing which or how they are.
It is about focal attention, a step prior to perception and awareness of things. Including our internal states, and therefore, our sensations, emotions and feelings (what can be called self-attention).
What exactly is focused attention?
As its name indicates, it consists of the ability to focus our perception and our processing on a specific object, avoiding distractions.
Through techniques, such as those of mindfulness-type therapies, it is possible to intentionally work on this type of attention, which ends up generating greater awareness of themselves and their affective states in the person.
Self-care and flexibility
Let's see what happens when we don't pay enough attention to ourselves. If something that affects us generates emotions and feelings in us , it does not go through that self-care sieve (emotional reaction management). It will automatically cause our behavior, without leaving us the possibility of flexibility. That is, we will not be able to adapt our way of acting to the situation and to our needs or those of others.
On the other hand, even if there is no inappropriate behavior in some sense, the lack of flexibility will have previously harmed us. Since, it does not allow us to assimilate, accept, understand and regulate our emotions, creating an unpleasant feeling of emotional overflow. This feeling of discomfort, to a considerable degree, can manifest itself through symptoms related to anxiety, depression and various psychopathological disorders.
Regulation versus control
It should be noted that this self-regulation of the affective world has its limitations. The attention directed to our internal world, indeed, increases our degree of control over it. But this control will never be absolute.
Going back to the metaphor of messenger emotions, we will have received their message, but it will not have been in our power whether or not the message tried to reach us.
Receiving the message, on the other hand, will allow us first of all to know more completely what surrounds us or ourselves. It will also give us the opportunity to decide what to do with our most primary affective reactions, since we will have been able to detect them in time, so that we can later accept and manage them. In this way, we will avoid reaching discomfort characterized by a feeling of bewilderment, or a complete lack of control over our unpleasant emotions. As far as the more pleasant emotions and feelings are concerned, receiving the message will make us better able to enjoy them and experience them more vividly.
Self-observation and quality of life: evidence
The practice of self-observation increases psychological well-being in people and reduces discomfort , as supported by research that bases its results both on questionnaires administered to the individuals studied and on neuroimaging techniques. The latter show, respectively, a tendency towards decreased activation of the amygdala and increased activation of the prefrontal cortex. As far as we know, the former is the area of the brain most involved in fight-flight type reactions, including aggression and fear. While the second seems to be the most active area during decision making and other activities that involve self-control.
In the field of physical well-being, it has been observed that, when experiencing pain, especially if it is continuous, the fact of observing physical sensations without merely being "assaulted" by them leads to experiencing them in a less threatening and more bearable. On the other hand, the beneficial effects on the regulation of our affective states lead to a general improvement throughout our organism, which seems natural considering the close connection between emotions and feelings and physiological functioning. Manifest union, for example, in the endocrine system and its relationship with mood.
self care work
One of the ways of working to care for ourselves is psychotherapy . This, despite varying widely in language, perspective and techniques depending on the therapist, always uses the following mechanism of action to be effective. Help the patient or client to know himself better, also generating in him, normally, the habit of self-observation.
This is not the only way we can grow in this skill. Through the constant exercise of directing attention, both externally and internally, our focused or selective attention grows, including focused self-attention. The techniques from mindfulness that promote “attention to the present moment”, to what surrounds us “here and now” are based on this premise.
As we increase our capacity to observe the external at sensory and sensitive levels in general, we increase our capacity for self-observation. Also our affective self-observation, first of all, because emotions have a somatic or physical component that is absolutely inseparable from the rest of the emotional experience.
A practical attention exercise
A technique from mindfulness, one of the simplest and most applicable on a daily basis, is the exercise known as "the raisin". Named like this because the task is exemplified using this fruit as its object. It consists of trying to observe an object with the five senses (it can also be a situation) in a new way, as if it had never been known or heard of.
In the example of the raisin, it would be taken between the fingers , exploring its texture carefully. It would also look at itself, noting all the nuances of brightness, shadow, and color change possible in the small object. He would bring the raisin up to his nostrils to inhale its scent. He would then hold the raisin to his ear and twist and squeeze it slightly, listening for any slight noise it made. Finally, it would be introduced into the mouth and savored, stopping to appreciate the flavor, the texture, the effect in the mouth and the chewing and swallowing process.
All this process, apparently so ceremonious for such a vulgar object, is a good example of how far it is possible to increase our level of attention on a day-to-day basis. We can do the same with everyday situations, such as a meal, a physical task, contemplating nature, or a conversation. In this way, we sharpen our senses and, above all, gradually increase our ability to focus these senses on what surrounds us and what happens to us.
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